"He's got that special something," says Florida center Mike Degory, no stranger to Nelson and big plays since they were teammates in high school on a state championship team at Palm Bay. "I don't know what you call it but whatever you call it, he's got it."
To understand it, whatever it is, consider Nelson's resume for Saturday's 35-9 Homecoming win over Mississippi State at The Swamp:
For starters there were three unassisted tackles and two assists including one touchdown-saving stop of Mississippi State's Keon Humphrey on the next to last play of the first half. Humphrey beat free safety Kyle Jackson's coverage in a zone, then broke a tackle near midfield. Humphrey was on his way to a touchdown when Nelson ran him down from behind to stop him at the Florida 18. Instead of cutting Florida's 12-3 lead to 12-10 at halftime, the Bulldogs had to settle for a 35-yard field goal attempt by Keith Andrews that sailed wide right.
He had two sacks in a three-play span, good for 15 yards in losses on Mississippi State's final possession of the game, killing what would have been a pride-saving scoring drive.
He recovered Jonathon Lowe's fumble of an Eric Wilbur punt at the Mississippi State 13 in the second quarter. On the next play, DeShawn Wynn rumbled into the end zone for Florida's only touchdown of the first half with 6:16 remaining.
Mississippi States' quarterback Michael Henig (7) gets sacked by Florida's safety Tony Joiner (19) and safety Reggie Nelson (32) in the 2nd half of play Saturday, Oct. 8, 2005, in Gainesville, Fla. Florida defeated Mississippi State, 35-9.(AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
He downed two Wilbur punts inside the five yard line to pin Mississippi State against its own goal line. Florida's defense put on the heat to score on two safeties, marking the first time since 1987 in a 31-4 loss to eventual national champion Miami that the Gators have gotten two safeties in one game. He downed a 56-yard Wilbur punt at the one in the second quarter that led to a safety three plays later when Jarvis Herring forced Omar Conner to intentionally ground the ball in the end zone with 7:38 remaining. In the third quarter, Nelson was there at the one to down a pooch punt by Wilbur. One play later, Brandon Siler tackled MSU quarterback Mike Henig in the end zone for a safety to give Florida a 21-9 lead with 59 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Nelson had one official quarterback hurry although he could be given credit for at least four others since his closing speed forced Henig to unload the ball well before he had an open receiver.
Nelson was a dominating, game-changing presence throughout the game. What made his effort so special was the joy and enthusiasm which marked his play.
"He hits you and he smiles," said Coach Urban Meyer. "That's a helluva concept isn't it? I kinda like that. Reggie Nelson is one helluva football player."
Although he has a habit of coming up with big plays, Nelson just has to be on the field to make an impact. He is the X-factor, the one player on Florida's defense that has to be accounted for on every single play. Forget where he is on the field and inevitably, he will make you pay.
Gator defensive end Jeremy Mincey says the whole team benefits from Nelson's presence.
"I love Reggie Nelson," he said. "He comes with his A-game every game and on every play. I love him because I know we can always count on him."
Nelson just smiles and shrugs it off. He doesn't think he's doing anything all that special. He's just out there playing football and that's the only place he wants to be.
The joy of playing is perhaps heightened by his odyssey from Palm Bay to the University of Florida. When he was signed by Coach Ron Zook in the recruiting class of 2003, Nelson was hailed as the nation's best playmaker on defense. He played wide receiver, cornerback, safety and linebacker for two Palm Bay state championship teams and he was labeled as can't miss.
Florida's Reggie Nelson (32) recovers a fumble on a punt in the first quarter against Mississippi State in Gainesville, Fla. Saturday, Oct. 8, 2005.(AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)
While he couldn't miss on the football field, there was a mix-up in the Palm Bay administration that cost him admission to the University of Florida. Had his high school properly documented his learning disability, he would have been at Florida in 2003. Instead, he went to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where he redshirted one year before making junior college All-America last year.
Resigned to Florida by Coach Urban Meyer back in February, he sweated through a re-testing of a math course before learning he was eligible to transfer into UF in mid-summer. Since then, he's shortened the learning curve considerably by picking up Florida's defense quickly and doing things that simply cannot be taught.
"I just try to practice hard every day," he said. "If you practice hard it makes it easy in the game. Every chance I get I go out there and make the best of it. That's all I want to do."
What makes his game so frightening for an opponent and so remarkable to watch for Gator fans is how easy the game comes to him. It's not difficult to figure out that he has the best football speed of any player on the field. There are players who may run 40 yards faster in a race against the clock, but no one has better game speed. He's been the fastest and most dominating player on the field at every level.
"This is the same game it's always been, just more fast than it was in high school," he said. "I just go out and play football. I enjoy playing football so I just go out there and play as fast as I can."